What makes a good leader? For the purposes of a recent Rand Corp. study, in cooperation with the Army’s headquarters personnel office, researchers measured sergeant major and first sergeant success.
What they found is that the Army might not be promoting the right kinds of soldiers into leadership roles.
“The Value of Experience in the Enlisted Force," released on Oct. 8, analyzed data from more than 200,000 soldiers who enlisted between 2002 to 2014 and compared their rates of attrition, promotion and demotion to the times in service of their sergeants major or first sergeants.
They concluded that while experienced NCOs have better success in these aspects with their junior soldiers, at a certain point, their long careers can start to work against them. And that while soldiers who promote quickly are valued by the Army as overachievers, their lack of experience might hinder their leadership abilities.
“For example, attrition rates are higher among junior personnel under senior personnel who have less than 22 years of service,” according to the report. " However, more experience is not always a positive factor; rates are also slightly higher under senior personnel with more than 25 years of service."
It was a similar story with time spent deployed, often seen as the hallmark of a seasoned leader. Between 20 and 39 months deployed was the sweet spot, with higher rates of attrition among senior NCOs with more or less time overseas.
“Our results are consistent across our measures of senior leader experience: In each case, junior personnel have higher attrition under senior personnel with low levels of experience,” according to the report. "But higher levels of experience are not always associated with lower levels of junior personnel attrition. Junior attrition is higher in units with the most-experienced leaders than in those with moderately experienced leaders.
To deepen the study, researchers consulted a handful of previously published works about leadership both within and outside of the military, then sat down with active duty soldiers of various ranks and career fields to talk about their personal experiences with leadership.
By the numbers, researchers found that in a unit with 100 junior soldiers, between 12.4 percent and 14.4 percent could be expected to leave the Army before finishing their initial contracts, due to failure to adapt or other behavioral issues. That 2 percent difference would translate to two more soldiers who finish their first enlistments, saving the Army the roughly $60,000 it drops into recruiting and training new soldiers.
“This suggests that the Army would need to recruit about one fewer soldier for each unit with a leader of typical experience than for one with a less experienced leader,” according to the report.
Even when controlled for the increased pay of a senior NCO who’s been in more than 22 years versus less than 22 years, keeping those two soldiers is a cost savings.
To evaluate other nuances of leadership experience, the Rand researchers turned to a 1996 Cornell University report called “Research on Leadership Selection and Training: One View of the Future.”
That report found that inexperienced leaders were better in low-stress situations, while those with the most experience better handled stressful conditions.
“The proposed explanation for these results is that leaders under stress rely on their intuition; when based on a greater range of experience, this intuition and hence their performance is better,” according to Rand. “Under low-stress conditions, the more experienced leaders are not as challenged and tend to cut corners and, as a result, underperform.”
Finding and growing leaders
Admittedly, according to the study, the Rand team didn’t include mid-grade NCOs in their study, but rather extrapolated that team leaders, squad leaders and platoon sergeants would fall in line with the command climate set by their superiors.
Overall, the study’s key finding was that senior leaders with less than 22 years of experience were more likely to have soldiers who left the Army early, with lower promotion rates and higher demotion rates.
“In particular, attrition is higher in units with leaders who were fast promoters and thus have less experience,” according to the report.
But of course, the Army cannot restrict all company first sergeants and battalion command sergeants major billets to NCOs who fall between the 22- and 26-year mark, so the researchers honed in on fast-burners, to analyze what factors might contribute to their more negative statistics of junior soldier performance.
“Junior enlisted personnel are less likely to be promoted quickly to E-5 when the senior enlisted leader has more deployment experience,” the report found, regardless of time in service. “While we do not know the exact mechanism behind this finding, it is possible that senior leaders with more deployment experience apply promotion criteria in a stricter manner or in a manner that rewards somewhat different traits.”
They also found slower promotion rates in senior leaders with middling Armed Forces Qualification Test scores ― between 50 and 64 ― or if the leader him or herself took a while to make E-6.
These nuances of the enlisted promotion system might account for more than the performance of junior soldiers, researchers found. They might also explain why young, high-performing soldiers burn up the ranks but ― statistically, at least ― don’t make the best senior leaders.
A soldier’s first few promotions come automatically. When they’re ready to hit E-5, they have to complete schooling and have their documented accomplishments evaluated by a board.
“The promotion point process captures largely the knowledge theme when referring to the leadership qualities identified in our interviews,” according to the report. “Deployment experience, civilian education, awards, and weapon qualification might serve as proxies for effective leadership, but they are indirect.”
Along with PT scores, those factors add up as promotion points that will give a soldier the edge.
“Army doctrine and interviews with junior enlisted personnel identify multiple competencies and attributes associated with effective leadership, none of which is explicitly captured in the promotion process until promotion to E-7,” the Rand team said of their interviews with 19 active duty soldiers as part of the study. “These observations suggest that the Army is not identifying soldiers with leadership potential early in their careers and fostering them accordingly.”
Junior soldiers are generally evaluated on their MOS proficiency, but not so much on their potential to become senior leaders, despite the fact that those roles are their inevitable career trajectory if they stay in the Army.
Not until a soldier is up for E-7, when they are interviewed by a board and have to articulate their leadership experience and philosophy, does the Army begin to really hone in on those skills.
“None of the factors considered in the promotion point process explicitly captures whether the NCO cares for his or her soldiers or is successful at mentoring and training them,” the report said. “Notably, a full 40 percent of promotion points to E-5 are associated with physical fitness and weapons qualification.”
While the Army hasn’t made changes to the points system recently, it did update the way E-5 and E-6 promotion boards are run in 2017, automatically sending eligible specialists and sergeants to their local promotion boards. Previously, they would have needed a battalion commander’s recommendation to appear, which to some gave off the appearance of favoritism and unfairly penalized soldiers who weren’t as well known or liked by their leadership.
Falling behind in this way sometimes discouraged soldiers from staying in the Army, feeling their promotion chances weren’t good because they weren’t as popular with their chain of command.
Generally, according to data, soldiers who promote quickly to E-5 will continue to promote quickly throughout the rest of their careers, if they stay in. If they promote quickly again, to E-6, their retention rates are high. However, those who promote most quickly to E-5 are the least likely to stay in the Army long term.
The result is a narrow pool of early high-performers moving into higher and higher leadership positions, with little indication that they have leadership potential. On the other hand, those who are slower to promote to E-5 are more likely to stick around for another enlistment and beyond.
“Thus, from the perspective of managing attrition, retaining soldiers who promote in the median range makes the most sense,” according to the report. "Of course, it may be possible to provide additional training or experience to the fastest-promoting soldiers prior to putting them in charge of units.”
A key recommendation of the Rand report is that the Army figure out how to measure a soldier’s compassion or ability to foster a learning environment when considering him or her for sergeant or staff sergeant, to indicate whether a good performer on the fast track will have success later on.
“The Army should not only be considering soldiers’ historical demonstration of leadership in the promotion process but also be considering the potential for leadership, as it does for senior NCO positions,” the report said.
Quantitative personality tests could help capture some predictors, the study suggested. For example, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test has two profiles that show clear leadership affinity, the “commander” and the “executive.”
“These soldiers may be identified as part of an informal process of mentoring in the NCO support channels, but, doctrinally, the Army’s process is not oriented to identify those soldiers as a matter of course,” according to the report. “As a result, the Army may be losing effective leaders early and limiting the pool of senior NCOs.”
Another idea, the researchers offered, could be wrapping some of the elements of the NCO Evaluation Report into promotion consideration for more junior soldiers, rather then relying entirely on promotion points. Another is a promotion exam, which could identify knowledgeable and proficient soldiers early on.
While the Rand study was underway, the Army revamped its professional military education system for enlisted soldiers, doing away with the online Structured Self-Development program and replacing it with a more interactive, choose-your-own-adventure-style Distributed Leader Course.
So few senior leaders have taken those courses so far, according to the report, that it would be difficult to measure whether the updated program had any effect on leadership skills. However, because only the Basic Leader Course ― required for promotion to E-5 ― had touched on leadership skills, and only minimally, researchers felt DLC was not likely to make a big change.
“The analysis here suggests that such effects would likely be minimal, especially when compared with other aspects of experience (such as deployment experience, [time in service], or [time in grade]),” according to the report.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.